Thursday, 11 October 2012

Votes at 16 and the critical importance of the annual canvass

I'm told that an option being actively considered in the referendum negotiations between the Scottish Government and the UK Government is to agree in principle to changing the annual canvass of electors as set out below, but then to "discover" that in practice it won't be possible for reasons of money, time or legislation. So we'd end up with a two-tier franchise and both governments avoiding the blame. This must not be allowed to happen.

Also The Telegraph has today published a somewhat speculative piece suggesting that the agreement on votes at 16 falls a long way short of ideal. We're yet to see who blames who for this (and indeed if it's accurate): 

I have long supported votes at sixteen, on the principle of no taxation without representation. (For the sharp-minded, yes, I do think under-sixteens should be exempt from most taxes, but that's another argument.)

I'm also unmoved by the argument that even if the principle is correct, introducing this measure for the independence referendum would be wrong because of its importance or uniqueness. If the principle is right and we have the opportunity to put it into practice, we should do so without calculation. If it garners more votes for the Yes camp so be it. It's the right thing to do.

My sole concern is that if 16 year olds and over are to have a vote in 2014 then all of them must have the same opportunity to do so. And that is where we need action.

Every household in Scotland receives an annual canvass of electors from their local Valuation Joint Board. The returns from this canvass are used to keep the electoral register up to date. This is a long-established proactive model for electoral participation, in which people are asked to opt in, rather than merely being given the option to do so.

Current forms are designed to capture information about all members of a household who are over 18 or will reach the age of 18 during the lifetime of the coming register. Typically forms are sent out in August or September, and the electoral register is updated in December and intended to be valid for a year. This is why the forms ask for the names and birthdays of 16 and 17 year olds in the household, so that if their 18th birthday falls within the coming December-November they can be added to the register at that point.

This year's VJB canvass was done on this basis. That means the only people asked to opt in to the electoral register up to December 2013 are those over 18.

This immediately poses a problem for both the Yes Scotland and Better Together campaigns, because the coming year is a critical campaign period and we will have no data at all on a whole chunk of the potential electorate. So already 2014's 16 and 17 year olds are being disenfranchised.

But more importantly it highlights how absolutely critical it is that next year's VJB canvass must ask for the names and birthdays of 14 and 15 year olds in a household, alongside asking for the names of everyone over 16. Only in this way can we ensure that everyone who will have the right to vote in 2014 will have been asked to opt in by then.

The alternative is the approach used for the pilot Health Board elections in 2010 in Fife and Dumfries, where for 16 and 17 year olds only, franchise was granted on individual application, rather than annual canvass. The number of 16 and 17 year old who chose to register was tiny, and the number of those disenfranchised was huge.

It may be argued that more under 18s are likely to register for the far higher profile independence referendum than for the Health Board elections, but that simply is not a justification for asking most electors to opt in while requiring a subset to register individually. If the referendum is to be fair, all electors must be treated equally.

It's already too late for campaigners to have the details they need to contact 2014 voters next year, but we cannot dodge this next year. Votes at 16 must be fair votes, and that means every elector treated the same.